Piecework

She had been lucky to find the job at Ricki Reed. When they had landed in Melbourne, they had been met by her cousin Gina, Gina’s husband Dante and their two boys, Bruno and Guido, with whom they would share a house until, as Dante liked to say, ‘they were on their feet’. Gina and Dante had arrived five years earlier than Beatrice and had recently bought their own home in Fitzroy and having Beatrice and Federico sharing would help them pay the mortgage. They already spoke some English and they knew their way around Melbourne’s restaurants and factories likely to give work to migrants. Dante, who worked the night shift at the meatworks, had offered to accompany both Beatrice and Federico door-knocking for jobs. He had helped Federico first, since the men were better paid. Once the children were settled in school, he took Beatrice to look for work in Flinders Lane, one of the rag-trade hubs.

Ricki Reed was the third place they had gone to. Beatrice had asked to be tried on a plain-stitching machine and the forelady had asked her to attach the pocket on a cotton day-frock. She watched Beatrice sew, inspecting the size and straightness of the stitching. Then she had handed her a chiffon party dress and asked her to stitch the side seams. She had seemed impressed when she saw Beatrice changing the tension and size of the stitching. She then spoke a few sentences to Dante and escorted them back through the factory exit.

Outside, Beatrice had excitedly asked Dante to translate what the forelady had said: ‘Che cosa ha detto? What did she say?’

He had laughed and answered quickly, as excited as Beatrice. ‘She said you’re a bit too slow. But she liked the precision of your stitching and your familiarity with the machine… She wants you to start next Monday and if you can increase your speed in the next two weeks, she’ll keep you on!’

‘Oh, Madonna!’ said Beatrice, clapping her hands together over her mouth, thanking heaven, earth and Dante: ‘Grazie al cielo…Ti ringrazio, Dante; grazie mille!’ She took his arm with both hands and gave it a squeeze: ‘Veramente, grazie…’ As Beatrice walked up Swanston Street towards Flinders Lane, she calculated that this had happened over two years ago. She was very fast now and made a good wage; she had become one of the forelady’s favourites, who often gave her the more delicate work to complete, paid at a higher rate.

Although it wasn’t quite seven thirty in the morning, there was lot of traffic in Flinders Lane as vans and cars brought fabrics and garments in and out of the ‘Lane’. Melbourne’s garment manufacturing was concentrated here, with both buyers and suppliers in close proximity which meant there there were workers everywhere on the narrow footpath and the road. As the seamstresses hurried into the building doorways to disappear down or up stairwells or lifts in the hope of getting to work on time, there were men in dustcoats – the cutters and storemen – who started earlier and were now taking their first ‘smoko’ in the foyers or on the street, alone or with their mates on the footpaths and on the road. At the same time, there were young women and men going to and from the factories to purchase or deliver buttons, buckles, belts, zippers, sequins, lace, as others wheeled covered clothing racks from the factory to the delivery vans, to nearby factories for further elaboration and if the garments were finished, to the showrooms of the city retailers, like Sportsgirl, David Jones and Georges. These racks were jealously guarded and covered in sheeting since style and design was easily copied and up for grabs to any onlooker with a notion in this very competitive clothing hub. As Beatrice turned into Flinders Lane, she began ducking and weaving her way around the crowd to get to the factory.

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